The outcome of the meeting of EU heads of government in Brussels last Thursday has been widely criticised for the inadequacy of its response to the refugee crisis on the Mediterranean. Rather than address the most pressing question on how to arrest the escalating refugee death toll on the high seas the suspicion is that the authorities are using it is an opportunity to return to ‘Fortress Europe’ strategy which envisions the continent sealing itself from the migration pressures being generated across Africa, the Middle East and Central Asian regions.
Under the pretext of preventing people from dying at sea the leaders of the member states concluded their summit with a commitment to
“strengthen our presence at sea, to fight the traffickers, to prevent illegal migration flows and to reinforce internal solidarity and responsibility.” — Statement from the Special Meeting of the European Council, 23 Apr 2015
The concluding statement agreed by the heads of government reduced the bulk of its consideration of the factors that have produced the latest spate of efforts to cross the Mediterranean and the consequent rise on the death toll to the issues of people ‘trafficking’ and ‘key push factors’ in the countries where the migration flows originate.
From the standpoint of organisations working most closely with the refugees who are attempting the hazardous Mediterranean voyage the terminology of people trafficking seems particularly inappropriate. In a recent article in the Guardian, Aidan McQuade, the director of Anti-Slavery International, set out the differences between the acts of smuggling and trafficking, arguing that the element of consent on the part of the refugees to the fact of being transported across international borders were clear indications of smuggling activity as opposed to trafficking.
McQuade insists that this is not a nit-picking point of no real consequence for the measures that need to be taken to counteract evil activity. As he says:
The conflation of smuggling and trafficking conveniently obfuscates the issue and buys political breathing space. It is a classic public relations move by those faced with evidence of their complicity in human rights abuses – or in this case, arguably, a preventable atrocity. When faced with such horror, it is easier to make grand statements blaming migrant deaths on evil traffickers than to seek the causes and identify proper responses.
The same needs to be said about another terminological point which runs throughout the EU summit statement – its insistence on branding the movement of people away from situations of extreme danger as ‘illegal migration’.
The section of the statement headed ‘Preventing illegal migration flows’ makes up one of the longer portions of what is otherwise a brief document. Across eight paragraphs the statement promises collaboration with regimes in Africa and the Middle East which are considered by many experts to have directly contributed to the creation of the harsh and even deadly conditions which have impelled the flight of the refugees in the first instance.
No regard is given to the fact that the right to leave any country, including one of which you are a citizen, is expressly provided for in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – the international agreement which has underpinned all human rights law since the end of the Second World War.
The renewed interest on the part of the EU governments to, as the summit statement says, “… increase support to Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan, Mali and Niger among others, to monitor and control the land borders and routes…” appears to have little regard for the protection of the basic human rights of people to leave countries in which they do not wish to reside.
There are reasons be concerned that pressure from the EU will have the effect of transforming the majority of movements of people in regions where borders have been open and regularly crossed by shepherds and traders into a new form of non-state sanctioned irregular migration, with the understanding that it should be treated as a criminal activity.
When it comes to thinking about migration, as the Europe-wide Platform for international Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) has argued in its campaigning work, that ‘Words Matter.’ When the public authorities insist on seeing all forms of migration that takes place outside the scope of their bureaucratic and expensive visa-regulated channels as ‘illegal’ then they are constrained to think that everyone forced into these routes is, perforce, an ‘illegal migrant’ even when the factors of overwhelming compulsion are present as the reasons for making the journey. Operating in this mode it becomes possible to detain and deport people back to situations from which humane judgment allows that they should be permitted to escape.
Similarly, concentration on the role of people smugglers as a main factor driving migration, and designating it as an activity on a par with piracy, which was an implication of the text of the ‘Ten Point Plan’ which emerged from the meeting of foreign and interior ministers on Monday last week, is bound to lead EU policy in an erroneous direction. The suggestion that boats will be seized and destroyed whilst in the territorial waters of third countries poses real logistical and legal challenges and fails to consider the fact that by any standard and for whatever reason motivates the facilitators, the people they are transporting are entitled to the protection of international human rights law.
It would be ironic, or even tragic, if the biggest humanitarian crisis on the frontiers of Europe in a generation should lead, not to a determined event to reach a positive solution, but to a further drive to transform the continent into a fortress that closes its gates against people in need, and sallies forth out into its neighbouring regions only to attempt to restore order through the infliction of military pain on anyone not prepared to live by its edicts.
We know what needs to be done – renew search and rescue and provide safe routes for people fleeing violence and persecution to escape from the predicament. Our governments should not delay any longer in taking the required action.
Read original posting here.
This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.
*Don Flynn, the MRN Director, leads the organisation’s strategic development and coordinates MRN’s policy and project work. He is a regular and sought-after speaker at conferences, seminars and lectures on behalf of MRN.